Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"A Pirate's Life For Me" Retrospective: Part 2.

"No fear of evil curses, says you." Welcome back to my continuing coverage on Pirates of the Caribbean. As we set Jack's misadventures surrounding cursed Aztec gold and vicious sea monsters aside, it's time we ventured to the growing pirate war, and to the future beyond that. And take heed of these words, for in order to get my full points across and to tie the series and thematic knots together, I will have to spoil key moments on both current films and prior ones.

"Properly warned ye be, says I..."

At World's End:
Prior to its release, the eagerly anticipated close to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy received such tremendous hype that it became more than just a film, but an event. As an epic three-hour closer that returned Jack Sparrow from the grave and saw all our favorite characters at war with the East India Trading Company, and the Flying Dutchman's own captain Davy Jones, Disney must have assumed they had the next Return of the King on their hands. While it did make big bank as to be expected, the result proved even more troublesome for critics and viewers, in a way that seemed to exacerbate already prevalent issues with Dead Man's Chest. But again I ask, does that make it a truly bad film?

One thing's for certain, that's for sure: This movie is way too long and bloated for its own good. To be fair, a long running time isn't unexpected, given that this was (at the time) the final entry in the series, so the film had a multitude of loose ends to tie up, characters to bring full circle, and unanswered questions to be addressed while also building up to a rousing and gargantuan extended showdown. The problem is not simply the length, but moreso the misuse of that indulgent length. The movie wastes no time in getting straight into the thick of the action, so much so that anything in the way of recaps are brushed aside as the film chugs along, setting up the numerous players as they set out on their long journey, complete with all the heavy exposition to get all of the gears for the climax in order. All the while, the movie gets even further bogged down by convoluted games of secret agendas, with characters constantly stabbing each other in the back for seemingly out of nowhere reasons, and more of the contrived misunderstandings between Will and Elizabeth that bring the film to a grinding halt. It ultimately renders the movie unbalanced when it comes to characters, as you find yourself impatiently waiting for the end of certain subplots, so that you can get to the ones you really do care about. With how front-loaded the film is with gags and setting up plot points, it's no wonder it takes Jack Sparrow over 30 minutes to enter his own movie.

In fact, the more I look back on it, the more I'm starting to realize that all of the issues present in this film feel like early foreshadowing to Verbinski's The Lone Ranger; The overlong running time, the emphasis on talk over action, the jarring tonal shifts between grim and cartoonish, and the overall lightness on characterization as it builds to its enjoyable finale. Much criticism has been tossed the way of the film's opening scene, where dozens of pirates (including a child) are ushered to the gallows, in perhaps what is the most graphic opening in Disney history. Truth be told, those images don't upset me so much as they misrepresent the entire tone of the film. The movie is loaded with unnecessary filler whose exclusion would have benefited the running time, including countless gags from Pintel and Ragetti spliced in at inappropriate moments, but then again, the exclusion of these moments would have created a dull air of tedium. The movie tends to lean more towards talking over swashbuckling, seeming to mistake itself as a Quentin Tarantino flick with its extended conversations, including the meeting with Chow Yun-Fat's Captain Sao Feng in Singapore, that plays out for fifteen minutes before the film's first real action scene. It's understandable why Verbinski chooses to do this, so that the film doesn't over exhaust the audience before the big showdown at the end, but this is given that the viewer is still engaged by the time the film hits it apex - two hours in! There's build-up, and then there's blatant padding. This is what editors are for.

But if you'll permit me to be apologetic for the film, unlike The Lone Ranger, there was a genuine reason for all of this dragginess before the big finale. By this point, the prior films had done such a good job at building these characters up, and allowing us to care for them, that the stakes and the connection were already well established up to that point, as hard as it was to wade through the filler. Even if the movie is in bad need of character balance, and cutting out characters that really have no need to be there in the first place, the same great cast interplay is there - if buried a bit by the fat, coming up with old and new character pair-ups that continue playing with dynamics, including a directly antagonistic relationship between Jack and the newly resurrected Barbossa (who for some reason seems to have turned good guy?). And when it comes to crafting great villains with genuinely entertaining presence, this series has so far been excellent in that regard, featuring the returning likes of Davy Jones and Cutler Beckett, and more backstory to Naomie Harris' Tia Dalma.

And for all that his movie may lack in content, I will admit that from a purely visual and visceral level, Verbinski is a great talent. His trilogy lacks nothing in scale and flash, making use of particularly beautiful imagery and CGI to deepen the scope of the world, and the ability to take in the sights and sounds is probably one of the few benefits to the extended running time. I should also make quick note of Hans Zimmer's fantastic score, as I've so far neglected to mention him (for reason), and this is by far and away his best work in the series, as well as one of the finest efforts of his entire career, in no small part thanks to that beautiful new love theme. And to give the climax credit, while it too is a tad overlong, when it finally does roll along, it does prove a greatly satisfying pay off for everything that the trilogy had been building up to, making sure to give each of its important characters at least one moment to shine in the spotlight, and makes for a fabulous piece of eye candy.

And to the movie's additional credit, as it was originally going to be the end of the series, it did a good job of tying up every loose end, even if everything to come afterwards continually starts to unravel that good will. But as nicely knit as its ending may be, that still doesn't answer to all the convolution and whiplash just to get there. So while it does entertain me while I watch it, the sting still sours my mood on the overall package.

**1/2 / *****

On Stranger Tides:
As unfavorable as At World's End was, I think few would have argued it marked an appropriate place to close the series. But it seems Disney were keen to keep their Pirates money train rolling for as long as they could, as indicated by the fourth entry On Stranger Tides (inspired by the Tim Powers novel). With the original trilogy concluded and Verbinski passing the torch to try his hand at other projects, the helm soon passed to Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha director Rob Marshall, and a new story that focused on Blackbeard and an adventure to find the Fountain of Youth was formed for the continuing legend of *Captain* Jack Sparrow.

I think everyone agreed that this was the best option to continue the series with (that is, if you even wanted another sequel), as since the series has finally ended Will and Elizabeth's story and the war with the EITC, the series can finally focus on precisely what it should have done since the end of the first; Jack Sparrow venturing off to look for treasure. In a pleasant turnaround from the overly complicated politics and the constant shifting of allegiance between characters, On Stranger Tides very quickly restores the series back to its roots, as it bounces from each daring act to swashbuckling swordfight, and doesn't bog the viewer down with boring side details. Marshall quickly gets the magic back as Sparrow runs chaotically through the streets of London, impersonating judges, escaping from the royal crown, and outrunning soldiers on horseback. He recaptures that lightness and absurdity of the original film, taking viewers on a delightful and sometimes breathless venture through the scenery, even throwing some winking nods and cute callbacks to Jack's first duel with Will all before the half hour mark.

Marshall's goal is simple, to come running out the gate, and keep the momentum up for as long as he possibly can, but at the same time, also trim down the fat and keep the affairs to basics. This also means that in comparison to the earth-shattering scale of At World's End, he's decided to pull back on the scope and scale when it comes to action. This is actually to the film's benefit in creating a more grounded, if not always serious air, as Jack's stuntwork has reached Assassin's Creed levels of daredevilry, and you get the feeling Marshall may be laying the humor on a little too thick. But generally, the action is genuinely well-delivered, particularly standing out during a disturbing attack sequence featuring mermaids that feels plucked from a horror movie, that may be sure to change the way you look at Ariel for years to come. That said, Marshall, despite forming almost an entire career out of being a choreographer, is not always the most savvy when it comes to close-quarters combat, and I have some particularly nagging thoughts on the sound mix. This is definitely the loudest of all the pirates films, sometimes overbearing the imagery with its over-mixing, which may be owed in large part to compensate for the testosterone-induced bulkiness of Hans Zimmer's copy-paste score.

This series has never been particularly deep or complex on a character level, but they've always been filled with people you're instantly delighted to see once they make their grand entrance. Key in point, Depp remains as enjoyable as ever as ol' Jacky. If not quite as inspired as his very first outing (then again, what is?), he's still the same uncontainable, unfiltered, and unpredictable nuisance we came to know and love, weaseling and scheming his way through mishap after mishap, even when he gets showed up at his own game by a new foil. New to the film is an old flame of Jack, Angelica as played by Penelope Cruz. Likely having been attracted to the project thanks to her former Nine director, Cruz is a terrific foil to Jack's more stumbling nature, sensual and manipulative in her ability to twist facts and keep secrets close to the chest (sometimes doing so by telling the truth), and acting hilariously acidic to her former lover, while also hinting at deeper and more sincere feelings, that is if the two were even willing to trust each other.

Aside from Jack, the only other returning players include his first mate Gibbs, as well as the return of Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, who while separated from the main action for quite a while, still brings the scenery-chewing and wickedness we come to expect, and is as entertaining to watch as always. Not all characters are as shining, however, with Ian McShane's Blackbeard being an unfortunate victim. This character has a killer introduction (no pun intended), and McShane certainly brings the wit and the devilry, but Blackbeard is such a one-note and standard "evil" villain that his presence tends to fare more boring than threatening. There's also some complicated nonsense about whether or not Angelica is his biological daughter, and the entire relationship between the two being defined by thinly sketched affection laced with pure acidic detachment.

And I guess it was too much for this movie to completely leave Will and Elizabeth's romance aside, here seen in their spiritual successors, a missionary played by an early Sam Claflin, and a mermaid played by (in her incredibly obvious first time) model Astrid Berges-Frisbey, whose love story slows the movie down every time it cuts back to them. I guess the studio needed *some* innocence to balance out the backstabbing. And did I mention that throughout the movie, Blackbeard's and Barbossa's crews are trying to outrun a Spanish Catholic fleet to the Fountain? I guess because the movie tends to forget about that as well, infrequently inserting them back to stir up some false tension. For as good as this movie is at keeping things simple, this very inconsistent web spun in the second half of the film does upset that momentum Marshall tries to keep up. Oh, and what was with that Judi Dench cameo during the street chase?

My thoughts obviously appear scattered, as is the film they're for, but on the whole I actually enjoyed this movie a great deal. If not to the level of Black Pearl or Dead Man's Chest, it is a marked step up from At World's End. Pure junk food viewing, but I love it all the same. A true guilty pleasure.

*** / *****

And now, me mateys, we've reached the end of our journey. But there still be more seas to venture out and explore, full of more curses, undead crews, and a nefarious Spanish captain. This weekend, the next (and presumably final) entry of the Pirates of the Caribbean saga will reveal itself, and I intend to be one of those adventurous landlubbers to discover what treasures it yields. Until then, thank ye for joining me as I sail through Memory Reef, and remember...

"Dead Men Tell No Tales...!!"

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